My mother-in-law grabbed my wrist with her gnarled hand, the way a drowning person grasps a life preserver.
“I’m scared,” she said. She was lying in her bed. She’d been frantic all day, up last night and all the day before.
“What are you scared of, Virginia?” I asked, never presuming to know what’s on her 101-year-old mind.
“I’m scared of being alone,” she said. She rolled toward me, twisting in her sheets. I straightened her covers and patted her grasping hand.
“You’re never alone, Virginia,” I said. “Someone is always with you.”
“Thank you,” she said in a whisper, her eyes darting around the apartment where she’s lived the last ten years. She had no idea where she was and didn’t seem to recognize me. I stepped back a little to encourage her to release me, but her grip was fueled by adrenaline.
“This is your apartment,” I said. “You’re safe here.”
She wanted to pull me under, into her bed, into the undertow of memory loss and a death that doesn’t come. I felt my resistance and immediate guilt for not giving more, even though I’ve watched over her for more than ten years. Then I remembered a lesson from the story of Eros and Psyche.
Sometimes we must save ourselves.
“I’ll see you soon,” I told Virginia. “Crystal is here. You aren’t alone.” Did my words calm her? Even for a few seconds? Her endless need suffocates me, even though I don’t change her Depends.
The day before, her breathing grew slightly labored. Her health aide got scared. Her doctor suggested we take Virginia to the ER for tests. Lots of tests. After seven hours, they sent her home after one dose of a diuretic and no new medicines. The diagnosis? A little fluid in the lungs. Nothing serious. Breathing issue was probably fear.
So her health status remained the same and she still didn’t qualify for Hospice. Her claw-like grip on me and on life wasn’t about to let go.
I thought of desperate hands reaching out of the River Styx in the 2nd Century story of Eros and Psyche. Psyche or Soul had completed three impossible tasks to reunite with her Beloved Eros. In my case, translate Eros as my creative fire. For the Fourth Labor, more impossible than the rest, Psyche’s lover’s mother (wouldn’t you know it?) Aphrodite ordered her to go to the Underworld and return with a Box of Beauty from Persephone, Hade’s Queen.
As with the other labors, Psyche despaired before finding help. A far-seeing tower told her how to get past the three-headed guard dog Cerberus and the weaving Fates. It told her how to pay Charon for a return trip across the River Styx. There was one more instruction, the one I remembered standing next to Virginia’s bed.
“When you cross the river in Charon’s boat, hands will reach out for you, hands that want you to save them,” the Tower said. “You have your own task to complete. You can’t save them.”
I wondered if Psyche questioned this. Aren’t tender-hearted women supposed to help everyone who asks? Aren’t loving women the caregivers who save others while sacrificing themselves?
Psyche crossed the river without latching on to desperate hands. She survived the Underworld and returned to the world of the living. After a few more adventures, the story ends with her marriage and the birth of a girl child named Voluptas, meaning pleasure or delight.
Pleasure? A word I tend to forget.
I’ve been a caregiver for my mother, my husband, and now my mother-in-law for twenty years. I’m tired. Sometimes I must say no when others reach out for support. I’ll continue taking care of Virginia until the end, but I can’t save her. I can’t save anyone.
I’m not applying for sainthood. I’m drowning.
“You’re OK, Virginia,” I said. “Thank you Crystal.” Then I pulled my arm away and walked out the door. I didn’t call the next day to find out how she was, but I knew that no news from her aides meant she was OK. While we waited for the next catastrophe, she settled back into sleeping most of the day and eating enough to maintain weight. Her breathing and her heart were fine.
Meanwhile, I wonder how I can learn something about Delight.
Writing this made me face my exhaustion. I hope my honesty doesn’t upset you as much as it upsets me. Have you had a similar experience? Could you pull back when you had to? Virginia and I have a long difficult history, none of which she remembers. I visit her twice a week, do the shopping, take care of doctors, finances, decision making, and health aides. She’s surrounded by attentive 24-hour helpers. I need to look for Delight by writing, reading, being with friends, and enjoying Nature.
For another post about my long relationship with Virginia, see To Forget and To Remember. A recent post, I Will Help You: Palliative Care Support Before Hospice, discusses why Virginia doesn’t qualify for Hospice, although we have Palliative Care support. This week, a Palliative Care nurse gave us helpful ideas for handling anxiety-induced shortness of breath and avoiding hospitals.